Laura Sandys: The six key shifts we need for a fairer society and greener future

15 Jul

Laura Sandys is a former Conservative MP, co-chair of the cross-party IPPR Environmental Justice Commission and chair of both the Energy Digitalisation Taskforce and the Food Foundation.

The UK has been at the forefront of most recent industrial and economic system changes from the spinning jenny through railways to a very vibrant tech sector. In climate policies under all governments we have continued this tradition of leading on the challenges and opportunities for a climate-safe and prosperous future. 

However, in the past, we have gone about “transforming” our economies without considering the long-term impacts and sustained damage for parts of our country – geographically, socially and to communities. For climate change transformation we can and must do things differently – and deliver on other goals also crucial to the success of the Conservative government. 

The IPPR Environmental Justice Commission, of which I am co-chair, today sets out a plan for a transition to a fairer, greener economy, that is full of opportunity – combining climate action and nature regeneration with fairness and levelling up – and in many instances “pushing on”. 

There are plenty of opportunities at the heart of the new climate-safe, nature-rich, future-fit economy and society that we propose. By moving fast we will mitigate some of the cost of extreme climate change that will impact our economy and community, with profound implications for life as we know it.

In addition, the economic gains should place the UK at the forefront of new business sectors, with SMEs delivering local and then exported technologies, new jobs across the country in future-facing companies and roles that will be sustainable for decades. Meanwhile, healthier diets, better air, clean travel, lower energy bills and greater self generation of energy will deliver tangible dividends to ordinary families.

However we all recognise that to transition to a more ecologically-balanced tomorrow, investment will be required; and, as with all change, there will be winners and losers. 

This challenge of maximising opportunities while supporting those most affected is the focus of our report. This cannot be a transformation that makes life worse for those already “left behind” – or create a new generation of discarded communities. Let us be very aware that citizens have a veto on Net Zero, so that “how” we implement the necessary measures is as important as “what” we develop.

So we asked communities that might lose out how to ensure we create the right “bridges” to where we all need to be tomorrow. We asked the people in Thurrock, with its large shipping and haulage economy; South Wales, dominated by intensive energy sectors and disconnected rural communities; Tees Valley and County Durham, with chemicals and gas industries; and Aberdeen, with its economy rooted in North Sea oil and gas: what did they think we need to do?  

As always, local people who see policy in terms of real life impacts not Whitehall spreadsheets had much to tell us. They were clear we needed to go faster and deeper – surprising, as their communities are among those most invested in the current fossil fuel economy.   

Their views are reflected in this report, and they proposed six key shifts in policy making. 

First, from a mindset of doom and gloom to one of optimism and opportunities. The benefits of ambitious action are substantial, from the creation of decent jobs to lower energy bills and public health benefits, to burgeoning wildlife and a healthier planet.  

The commission proposes a “people’s dividend”: direct green dividend payments to the public from revenue raised from carbon pricing. A similar scheme redirecting carbon taxation has been successful in Canada and elsewhere, building greater acceptance of carbon measures.

Second, fairness must be a foundation not an afterthought. The impact of the French “gilets jaunes” shows why delivering the transition fairly is crucial to securing it, by building enduring public support.

We have the capacity to mitigate changes and create bridges for those impacted. The commission proposes a “fairness lock” on every climate policy, to ensure this principle is at the heart of everything we do. 

Third, we heard clearly that the public must be part of this transition, not simply have it “done to” them. This matters most now we’re moving beyond decarbonising our energy grid – largely unnoticed by many – to a changes that will touch on people’s everyday lives. This stage will affect how we heat our homes and get around, what we eat and, for many, the jobs we do.

The commission proposes a people-first approach, providing “one stop shops” for support, information and guidance. We also call for the the public to have a clear role in creating plans – including through permanent, national and local citizens’ climate and nature assemblies.

Fourth, move away from “Whitehall knows best”, recognising that one size does not fit all. Our jurors proposed smart solutions, specific to their areas. Policies must be designed to be locally tailored, with government passing powers and money down to local authorities and communities, to achieve better and fairer outcomes. This will deliver more ambition, policy innovation and popular support.

Fifth, we need a coordinated whole-economy and all-society approach rejecting today’s silos. Government must work closely with great British businesses large and small, trade unions and workers, and civil society. New, overarching net-zero and nature-compliant rules must shape government spending and policy decisions – supported through tax incentives, small business loans and regulation.

Sixth, conserving nature has always been at the heart of my Conservatism. But even I was struck by the value our jurors placed on this as they proposed that nature be put on the same footing as climate.

We call for the creation of a Nature Recovery Committee, with legally binding targets for the environment, and a new National Nature Service – that some jurors suggested be called “The Attenborough Service”.

Our report has involved massive effort by many people, but that’s what is needed to deliver the huge systemic and societal change we need. An exciting change, an essential path but one that can deliver both deeper fairness and tackle the biggest challenges of our time – the climate crisis, and the need for restoration of our nature.